Written by  :  J. P. Gray (120)
Written on  :  Apr 21, 2008
Platform  :  SNES
Rating  :  5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars

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On a planet with this much intoxicating atmosphere, you're gonna need that space suit!

The Good

World-class immersion. Perfect elegance and simplicity in play control combined with first-rate interactivity in the game-world. A plot that derives almost all its emotional power from the player's in-game actions and experiences. A charming focus on weirdness and exotic mystery, always on display but never explained through limiting exposition, allowing a full and rewarding dialogue with the player's imagination. Super Metroid has it all, and thus may be the most perfect action/adventure platformer to date.

Even on most the superficial level, Zebes is a wonder to explore. The art direction here is pitch perfect for a platformer, and it combines seamlessly with other elements of the game design for top-rate immersion without any exposition beyond the opening cinematic. First and perhaps best is the music! Oh, the glorious music of this game! Building on Hirokazu Tanaka's fabulously abstract and innovative work in the first Metroid, composers Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano have created a true work of art here. From the heroism and eerie bombast of the intro cinematic, the game proceeds through bass-driven rhythmic catchiness (Brinstar), sparse and contemplative pentatonic piano (Kraid's lair), atonal brass with pounding drums (Norfair), pulsing zombie-film drones (Wrecked Ship) and many others, culminating in some rip-roaring, climatic boss music. Greatness! To top it all off, the power-up and schizophrenic item-room themes from the first game get beautiful, reverential updates. All the tracks mesh perfectly with the art, the general mood and atmosphere of the environments. The tunes here are absolutely essential in creating a dramatic feel for the action in the game.

And the graphic art is no slouch either. Monsters from the first game are wonderfully updated, with new wonders added to the menagerie such as the expressive and increasingly intelligent grunt space pirates, who finally show up in-game! The bosses are appropriately huge, hideous, and unique. No Metroid Prime style expository text is provided, and none is necessary. The thrilling weirdness of this alien world in its display alone provides all the background necessary to grip the player's imagination and lead it to rewarding places. What is the nature of the Chozo statues that hold such valuable items, assist the player, and occasionally come to frightening life? What happened on the wrecked ship, what culture produced the lonely walking robots inside, and what sort of creatures were they, based on the space-suit corpses scattered about that fester with Zebes parasites? What the hell is a Geemer? :-D No need to explain in tedious and exhaustive detail, since the player's imagination elevates the visual hints to its own unique, evocative sense of reality. Within the broad thematic framework of the visuals, the player makes sense of it in an individual way that is very rewarding.

All of this window-dressing is impressive, but it's all worthless without great play mechanics. Super Metroid has such in spades. Controlling Samus is a dream--her increasing abilities via powerups are wonderfully scaled to the player's increasing sense of skill and control. Just as the player gets comfortable jumping around the world, high-jump boots are available to enhance the exploratory and combat features of jumping. Just as the player gets used to using the "run" button, it's upgraded to a supercharged dash, allowing Samus to tear apart enemies on contact at high speeds. Not only this, but it is -combined- with jumping and directional aim to allow Samus to become a multi-directional battering ram that scatters all before it. The godly screw attack allows Samus' plain old jumping ability to become a devastating attack, ripping through regular enemies with ease--not only does this power-up make use of already-learned controls, but it simplifies and re-invigorates old areas that must be backtracked through. Those giant sidehoppers that earlier gave you so much trouble are a joke now to zip through. :-D

The environment is admirably well-mapped for interactivity. Things that seem as though they should work to the player -always- work, to the point of allowing for sequence-breaking and unfathomably fast runs through the game by experienced players. Super Metroid was in fact a major factor in the whole genesis of the "speedrun" phenomenon -because- of its precise controls and environmental flexibility. Watching the best of these speedruns is almost a revelatory experience--a skilled player making the utmost use of brilliant play mechanics creates a unique and beautiful kind of art. Whereas other speedruns are mostly made on glitches and bugs, Super Metroid allows for sequence-breaking that isn't game-breaking, and its fluid controls and robust environment are a huge factor in that. Dialogue between player and author at its best!

While there is an implicit linear path to be followed, the environmental and level design are complex enough (with enough delicious secrets!) that the player never feels overwhelmingly pushed in any direction until the end. The unfortunate limitations of turning the game 3d in Metroid Prime scaled the interactivity, secrets and diversions waaaay back, and added a frustrating map feature that essentially told the player "go here, go there, now go here again" at every juncture. In Super Metroid, you figure out where you should go yourself, based on a few reasonable clues, but you usually have something interesting to do if you don't -want- to go there. It's a nice balance between the first Metroid and the latest games. In the first, you essentially had to wander aimlessly for quite a while, and shoot/bomb every suspicious wall. Acquiring a power-up meant going back to past areas and trying to advance again, still without any certainty that a particular powerup will make the difference. This allowed for great mystery and a feeling of true undirected exploration, with all its attendant frustrations. Super Metroid uses its automap and X-Ray scope upgrade to remove many of the frustrations while retaining most of the mystery, whereas Metroid Prime attempts to eliminate all the frustrations via "scanning" everything and providing scripted hints, and thereby loses almost all the mystery as well.

Instead of an implicit "it makes sense that you should try this," the later games had more of the explicit "try exactly this, and it will work, stupid." :-P

The plot in Super Metroid is mostly your actions in-game, and their scripted results. Your triumphs of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving as an individual player make for the drama. Your route to solving the problems the game presents can be very unique--the plot is based on meeting criteria and advancing, but it's not very particular about -how- you meet that criteria. Whether you slowly battle through a series of monsters in an area with your beam weapon or use a super-dash boost to blast through and burst them all apart in half a second is up to the player. The designer presents the possibilities and limitations, and the player is allowed to make the most of them to succeed in a way that also tells the -player's- version of Samus' journey, not just the author's.

The Bad

Not much! The art and level design is somewhat limited by the platformer genre--it can't fully avoid the "moving through tunnels with platforms that have no reason for existence" syndrome of platform level design, and this does limit immersion in some areas. I'm sure upon resurrection Mother Brain had many rows with her secret-base contractors over failing to clear out those troublesome Chozo statues! The boss battles are a bit one-note in the sense that there is usually a weak-area you simply blast with super missiles until you win, or the King Hippo approach wherein you wait for an opened mouth and then blast away--the few exceptions to this such as the Maridia boss are well-done, but you wish for more of them. There is a general lack of scripted set-pieces as well, and the few times they appear (Crocomire, your first encounter with the "baby" metroid, revived Chozo statues, etc.) make you wish for more of them.

But really, there aren't too many complaints to be had here. It's a brilliant, evocative, and challenging masterpiece. Play it!

The Bottom Line

Art direction, game mechanics, and trust in imagination all combine for one of the very best experiences ever on the SNES, and that is saying quite a lot! Along with Out of this World, it's one of the finest works of gaming art in platformer history.